On Earth Day this year, a group of third-graders at Joella C. Good Elementary School gathered on their campus with green flags and shovels in hand. With the help of FIU artist Xavier Cortada, the students planted a live oak tree at their school to reclaim the land for nature.
For the last eight years, all 336 schools in the Miami-Dade County Public School System (MDCPS) have planted a tree and performed a flag-posting ceremony on Earth Day as part of the Native Flags Project. The project is led by Cortada, the artist-in-residence for both the College of Arts, Sciences and Education (CASE) and the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts (CARTA).
In 2008, Cortada travelled to the North Pole. He planted a green flag at Earth’s northernmost tip and launched an eco-art project along with a challenge: to help keep the North Pole from melting and sea levels from rising, he called for people around the world to plant trees native to their area. Native trees help local ecosystems and absorb carbon dioxide – ultimately helping halt the effects of global climate change.
The project took root in South Florida. Cortada found various community partners and venues committed to the endeavor. The Frost Science Museum (then-known as the Miami Science Museum), Deering Estate, Pinecrest Gardens and MDCPS have all partnered with Cortada and CASE, CARTA and FIU Libraries for the project.
Two MDCPS flagship schools are selected each year to receive a special visit from Cortada. He meets with a group of about 45 students, discusses the purpose of the project and tells them about protecting the environment through tree-planting. Then, they plant a native tree and take saplings from the tree as well as a green flag back home.
Ana Rijo-Conde, deputy chief facilities officer for MDCPS, says these kinds of events can have an enormous effect on students. She recalls one example during this year’s tree-planting that will remain dear to her heart for years to come.
While handing out the saplings to the students, Rijo-Conde heard one student tell Cortada: “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grow up, but now I know. I’m going to be a science teacher.”
“It’s amazing,” Rijo-Conde says. “I always marvel at how Xavier can speak to a group of children no matter what grade and bring everything into context. At the end of the conversation, they [the students] had such a good understanding of nature and their responsibilities as it relates to the earth. They were talking about how they were going to convey the message to their grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters. It’s just so great to see all of this enthusiasm.”
Recently, Native Flags project representatives also presented at the Leaf Summit, which was hosted at Biscayne Bay Campus this year. Cortada also participated in Pinecrest Garden’s planting of wild coffee garden, which included the Pinecrest mayor and council members as participants.
Cortada says planting the flag is a form of participatory art that helps establish a sense of purpose and confidence.
“At the end of the day, I’m using this as a way of having people change the way they see themselves, as a purpose-driven art that helps them reclaim their lives and their communities. The goal isn’t to plant trees, it’s to create citizens who care about planting trees and who understand the science and ethical dimension of this.”
Once people understand that they can make a difference, Cortada feels they will become more curious, more engaged and may start to create their own sustainability projects.
“The reason I’m an artist in residence at FIU is because I believe in this institution’s capacity to lead our Miami residents,” Cortada says.
He’s happy to be able to impact the broader audience with his art through FIU. “I know I’m at the perfect institution to have an impact.”